In John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, the title character is widely interpreted, and reasonably so, as a metaphor for Jesus Christ. This interpretation is not a stretch; Irving’s narrative is replete with instances that suggest Owen functions on a higher plane than those around him. A Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by John Wheelwright, Owen’s good friend, but whenever Owen speaks, Irving types his dialogue in upper classes letters, not dissimilar to when we write of God and Jesus, or employ the pronoun “Him” in references to the divine being. Early in the novel, in the chapter devoted to the foul ball hit by young Owen in a little league baseball game that hits and kills John’s mother, John begins the discussion by noting his diminutive friend’s unnaturally strong influence upon his religious outlook:
“I AM DOOMED to remember a boy with a wrecked voice-not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
Now, Irving’s decision to capitalize Owen’s dialogue may be more a matter of the author’s emphasis on Owen’s nasally high-pitched voice. The theme of religion in this novel, however, is to overwhelming, too prevalent to suggest that the capitalization does not hold some deeper significance. Owen’s self-identity with God and Jesus is pervasive throughout the novel, as when Owen insists on playing Jesus in a school Christmas pageant. The chapter in which this pageant is portrayed opens with John’s note that it was “the first Christmas following my mother's death . . .[that] I didn't spend in Sawyer Depot.” Owen’s commitment to portraying the baby Jesus is surpassed only by his devotion to fealty to the Bible, as when the group involved in putting on the play are discussing details:
“While the rector read, the kings bowed to the Baby Jesus and presented him with the usual gifts-ornate boxes and tins, and shiny trinkets, difficult to distinguish from the distance of the congregation but somehow regal in appearance. A few of the shepherds offered more humble, rustic presents; one of the shepherds gave the Christ Child a bird's nest.
"WHATWOULDI DO WITHABIRD'S NEST? "Owen complained.
"It's for good luck,"the rector said.
"DOES IT SAY SO IN THE BIBLE?" Owen asked.
Now, all of this has to do with Owen and, to a lesser extent, John. Hester is a whole other matter. Recall her near-obsession with sexual innuendo and her tendency towards making overtly sexual movements, including grabbing the boys’ genitalia (“We got to find Hester before she pulls our doinks,” “Hester the Molester”). Given the pervasive theme of religion throughout A Prayer for Owen Meany, especially the title character’s relationship to Jesus, the most logical context for a female character like Hester would be Mary Magdalene. While there are numerous contemporary interpretations of the Biblical figure of Mary Magdalene that refute the suggestion that she had been a prostitute, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Irving’s allegory is grounded in that older, more traditional interpretation. While comparisons between the Biblical Mary Magdalene and Hester Eastman are tenuous at best, Hester the adult rock star’s deep devotion to Owen is unlikely to be accidental. Clearly, she serves a larger purpose given the theme of Irving’s novel. Hester does not go on, following Owen’s death, to lead a particularly virtuous life, but the theme of redemption is there, as in John’s discussion of her in the book’s final passages:
“Hester, in her own fashion, has remained a kind of virgin, too. Owen Meany was the love of her life; after him, she never allowed herself to become so seriously involved.”
Whether the Mary Magdalene analogy holds up or not, there is no question that Hester is important to the novel’s religious theme. As a brazen, raunchy rock star, she wears crucifixes like their jewelry (“Occasionally, she even wears one in her nose; her right nostril is pierced”). A Prayer for Owen Meany is not the Bible; it is a novel with a great deal of sexual innuendo and features a major character’s whose physical characteristics are hardly the stuff of which Jesus comparisons are made. It is, however, a novel replete with religious imagery and a main character born under somewhat questionable circumstances. Late in the novel, John discusses Owen’s life with the latter’s parents, who insist that Owen’s was a virgin-birth:
"I mean he was born unnaturally," said Mr. Meany. "Like the Christ Child-that's what I mean,"he said. "Me and his mother, we didn't ever do it . . ."
"Stop!" Mrs. Meany called out.
"She just conceived a child – like the Christ Child," said Mr. Meany.
"He'll never believe you! No one ever believes you!" cried Mrs. Meany.
"You're saying that Owen was a virgin birth?" asked Mr. Meany; he wouldn't look a tme, but he nodded vigorously.
"She was a virgin-yes!" he said.
"They never, never, never, never believe you!" called out Mrs. Meany.
"Be quiet!" he called back to her.
"There couldn't have been . . . some accident?" I asked.
"I told you, we didn't ever do it!" he said roughly.
Hester’s devotion to Owen, whom she presumably ‘deflowered,’ is central to the novel’s theme, and her relationship to religion reflects the evolution of Biblical figures who questioned the word of Jesus Christ before accepting His word.